Business

The man who loves labor pains

Ian Brown April 2 1979
Business

The man who loves labor pains

Ian Brown April 2 1979

The man who loves labor pains

Over scotch, amid the tuxedo slaps of Toronto’s Albany Club, Ted Stringer laughs when he’s called a union-buster, but stretch him out in front of an interview in his Toronto office and the new-breed labor lawyer must deny the sobriquet. “No one can criticize the working man for wanting to better himself,” he insists. “When it comes to fair and equitable treatment in his employment relationship, unions come into play.” Nevertheless, Hamilton, Ontario-raised Stringer is the highly respected but unofficial leader of a new strain of Canadian labor lawyers whose prime intention is to see that unions don’t come into play at all. Riding the gathering clichés of neoconservatism, Stringer goes to bat for clients like John Deere Ltd. and International Harvester Co. Canada against their respective unions: “These guys have been around a long time, and in much less subtle form,” says Terry Meagher, secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Federation of Labor. But it is not the union leaders who are making headway as the Canadian Labor Congress’ 2.4-millionmember ranks grew by only 1.9 per cent last year. Pitched battles have become common with, for example, S.S. Kresge Co. and two other companies charged last week with conspiring to interfere with the formation of a trade union in Brampton, Ont.

Ted Stringer walks the thin legal line meant to entrench employees’ rights to form unions. “The point where I depart from unions and politicians,” he says, “is that unions claim for themselves— and politicians accord to them—the status of sacred cows and take the position that employees can only receive fair and equitable treatment through a union.” Translation: employees are better off without unions. Stringer’s methods speak volumes. A bitter union certification drive at a west Toronto distribution centre of Dylex Ltd. ended last spring when employees voted against the union 145 to 25. But the decision was reversed and the union granted immediate certification when the Ontario labor relations board found Stringer had exerted “undue influences” against the union. Plastering the walls with signs reading “Keep the union out,” he also displayed a case containing $90 worth of groceries—to show what $90 spent for annual union dues could have bought elsewhere. He then sent a series of letg ters to employees making references to o job security, strike possibilities and % what the union could promise. “We used £ some pretty strong language,” Stringer § remembers. “The signs were a little “ heavy, but I thought the groceries idea was kind of cute. Pretty graphic and pretty true.” The union was later decertified after the employees refused to strike over Stringer’s first contractual offer to the new collective bargaining unit.

Martin Levinson, the union’s lawyer, has a different view of that fight and accused Stringer of offering employees a ridiculously unacceptable contract, having a court reporter present at all times during the negotiations and holding the threat of an appeal of the labor board ruling over the heads of employees. Levinson, a quiet giant of a man who has yet to forget his hours on the line as an organizer for the International Woodworkers of America, boils in recollection: “Those two guys

[Stringer and David Brisbin, his partner] create situations where it is almost impossible for a union to regain the support of employees.” Recalling his own beginnings as a union organizer, Levinson wants the Ontario labor board to assume the power to enforce a fair first contract for new union members. For Levinson, it may be the final weapon against what men like Ted Stringer portend. Ian Brown